How should the United States manage its relations with China and Japan during the present economic debacle, with its potential for massive political and economic change?
That is no mean question since Japan and China own enormous amounts of American debt. In addition, China appears to be the only real source of world stimulation at this time. America has also long relied on its partnership with Japan. The security and stability of East Asia depend on the harmony of these three countries. How they manage the economic crisis will determine how fast it is resolved and the prospects for stability in the East Asian region.
The administration is handling these relationships in a traditional way, which has served the United States reasonably well over the past decade. American has become even closer with its Japanese ally, in great part because of Tokyo's difficulty in coming to psychological grips with a China that looms ever larger in the world and overshadows Japan in East Asia. At the same time, the Bush administration developed useful, friendlier and extensive consultative relations with China, which President Obama has continued.
Mr. Obama met Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and Chinese President Hu Jintao in April at the G-20 meeting in London. China remains the major economic concern, and Obama apparently believes that influencing Beijing on critical economic issues can be better achieved in a much larger multilateral setting-like the G-20-relying on other countries to add leverage. But it remains to be seen whether the G-20 is indeed more effective with China than bilateral talks, and that approach misses an important dimension by limiting the discussion to economic considerations.
Domestically, Obama has seized the economic crisis as a major political opportunity to resolve other pressing issues such as deep deficiencies in the U.S. health and education systems. He should try the same, perhaps more challenging, task on international issues and the global economic crisis. While extraordinary domestic travails and two wars may have limited Obama from immediate, dramatic engagement with China and Japan, the time is still ripe to continue efforts to accelerate world economic recovery through big-three cooperation in achieving greater stimulus, avoiding nationalism and protectionism, better aligning currencies and preserving monetary stability, and helping reform the world's economic and financial machinery.
While noneconomic issues have taken backseat in the crisis, there is ample reason to discuss some of them in tandem. If huge economic crises can generate new opportunities for engagement, they can also produce unforeseen political and strategic difficulties, as we saw in the thirties. Power shifts have been underway for some time in Asia and much change will come in ways we cannot predict. There remains, rightly or wrongly, a deep, underlying concern about where China is headed with its growing military power. There are also growing fears of Sino-Japanese animosity. Dangerous uncertainties like Taiwan and North Korea persist. Past incidents, such as the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the 2001 spy-plane episode, will inevitably occur and raise hackles. It would seem sensible to try to deepen ties among the three critical nations as a precautionary and preemptive measure.
In short, the three leaders should establish a trilateral consultative arrangement in 2009 and agree to meet at least once a year. Most importantly, they should agree on a charter of cooperation, concretely setting forth an agreed agenda on wide-ranging issues from climate change and the environment to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The policy menu will obviously need to be carefully worked out. But a mechanism that seemed impossible only a few years ago now has become feasible and necessary with China's greater role and confidence on the world stage-not to mention the economic crisis. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of pap produced at such a gathering, but that is inevitable in any major international meeting, certainly the bigger ones.
Some, however, see the world headed toward a G-2 arrangement-the United States and China coming together in some fashion to call the shots. That would be unfortunate. Its effective creation would be an extraordinary blow to Japan, America's major ally, and would provoke dangerous domestic political consequences in the country. Moreover, while Tokyo has had a difficult two decades, it remains a hugely successful country, a major economic player, a good international citizen and capable of change if it ever gets some real political reform.
A trilateral mechanism presents a diplomatic challenge since the United States and Japan have an existing alliance. Such an arrangement would also need to overcome cultural barriers, value differences and old grudges. Some issues could even be exacerbated, and some like Taiwan are unlikely to be discussed. Trilateralism is no panacea. There is little indication, however, that larger, multilateral mechanisms-including the UN-have helped much in bridging major national differences. Some countries will not take kindly to a serious U.S.-China-Japan collective, most notably South Korea and some other nations in Southeast Asia. But the trilateral effort does not preclude continued bilateral consultations, nor other multilateral mechanisms, including the ongoing one between Japan-China-South Korea. It may even encourage more such informal groupings.
The world and America, Japan and China should face reality. With the shift of power, there is no more important trilateral relationship. It needs to be formalized and nurtured in our increasingly confusing world.
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.